A One on One with Freddie B. Noe, Master Distiller
Mark Green: Bourbon is steeped in tradition but experiencing a highly innovative moment creating new flavor profiles and visitor experiences. How hard is it to chart a course for product evolution nowadays?
Freddie B. Noe: I would say it’s easy, but many people think I’m creative. If you’re in the industry and spending time with consumers and reading articles, you will come to see that now is a time in the industry when there is a need for innovation. It’s driven by what our consumers want and their curiosity to further see the flavor landscape of American whiskey, and the flavors that are available. There’s a lot of attention on American whiskey. That has a lot to do with it. Also, being able to look back to the past to see things that have worked out well and haven’t; there have been times of innovation before, and you use those things to help guide you into the future. A lot of it, though, is different levels of flavor that we can achieve and the flavor profiles that are to the fore right now.
MG: Has there been a change in flavor or a change in the expertise and way we’re describing what’s there? Are bourbon flavors changing?
FN: I don’t know that I would say the flavors are changing. I think people’s palates are becoming more educated. Your palate is only as educated as the food you’re eating, and there’s more availability today of different ethnic background foods. People are accessing this more. More flavor (experience) is starting to come about. I would also say there is a shift in how innovation is going on in the industry. It used to be maybe a single-barrel offering or maybe an exclusive small-batch version release. Now with the use of different casks and the blending of American whiskies, there’s an opportunity to drive more flavor, which in turn shows different characteristics and ways in American whiskey.
MG: How would you describe the industry’s state or bourbon drinking itself? Is the trend of the aging of the population having an effect?
FN: You come up with new and innovative ways to share your product. One thing my family has been very open about across our whole tenure of whiskey making is: Enjoy it! We make high-quality products for you to enjoy. There’s never been a drink-it-with-water-only approach. As you see bartenders starting to understand more about the products and more about the consumers, they’re coming up with new cocktails, which brings more people into the industry that maybe were turned off to bourbon before because they thought they had to drink it neat, or maybe with a splash of water. There are a lot of opportunities.
MG: Your father is known for saying drink it any way you want. Do you have a philosophy?
FN: It’s the same. It depends on the mood you’re in. Going back to the palate situation, the food you’re eating. Maybe even the company you’re sharing or the temperature outside. Sometimes I enjoy a nice Jim Beam highball. I enjoy a Knob Creek on the rocks from time to time. I like to enjoy our products in different ways. Definitely the same as Dad: You have to enjoy it how you like it. Take away the pretentiousness of whiskey drinking.
MG: What processes or flavor element profiles go into making a bourbon super premium?
FN: There’s a lot of different—as I call them—“levers.” Age obviously is one very easy indicator; a lot of complexity develops over age finishing. You can take your spirit and age it for a small period of time in a different cask—a wine cask, different types of wine or even different spirits, tequila barrels, things like that. Anything where you’re delivering more depth and character in the final product is something that I would categorize as super premium. It comes down to maybe taking a little more care or being crafty or maybe even hands-on in your process to help deliver something differentiated at the end result.
MG: Does being the eighth generation of your family to work at this high industry level affect how you approach the job?
FN: It affects me in that I’ve got a lot of history behind me. My dad is still a part of the industry. When we’re hearing or seeing anything, whether it be problems in the distillery itself, consumer-facing situations, new product development or ways of marketing, it’s always good to have someone around the block in your corner to help guide us. I would say I take that for granted. But also, it helps ground you to know that you’re just another link in the chain. I’m here to help preserve our family’s history, to help move the whiskey industry forward, and hopefully be a guiding light for new folks coming into the industry. It’s kind of a twofold look there.
MG: Is the younger audience today that is developing an enthusiasm for bourbon different in any way? Are they approaching it with more education?
FN: I think so. There’s more education at your fingertips as generations come along. I’m obviously from a different generation than my parents were; my kids are definitely in a different generation than I am. Educating yourself on the product you’re consuming is always critical, and you’re starting to see in our industry that folks who have had access to that technology come of age. They’re starting to become, to your point, much more educated earlier. Maybe they had more exploration around cocktails and different variations of their products because they can see the exposure online of these brands or these ways of consuming.
MG: Over the past six years, you have been experimenting with different blends, aging and flavors. What have you learned about making better bourbon?
FN: It gets down to being very much in touch with your process of whiskey making. When you do things like blending, whether it’s blending straight spirits or blending something that’s been finished in a unique cask, to me, a lot of it is being in touch with that process so that when you make that adjustment, you can assess the change that has occurred. This has become very critical when developing new products. It’s also set me on a journey to see what else is out there. I’m very curious. That’s what got me into blending, to begin with, my curiosity about the flavors of whiskey. Then the more I’ve gotten deeper into it, the more I see there’s a lot more flavor availability. You couple that with our consumers being very interested in that flavor and what is available in American whiskey. I think the time is right to continue to explore blending in American whiskey.
MG: In every field, one must master fundamentals before trying the tricky stuff. Does being an eighth-generation master distiller give you a frame of reference, a better foundation, a more refined palate?
FN: That’s true. But a lot of things go into it: having a good foundational knowledge of your process and mastering that understanding of grain and all the ingredients, all the way through to aging and finishing, whether that’s changing the proof at bottling strength or different casks. Being a master distiller is understanding the task at hand in using your abilities or the past references you do have to help guide to a better place.
MG: What makes Kentucky bourbon better than the products from elsewhere? Is it geography, culture, or the people?
FN: One thing that makes it very different is the climate. We get a true four seasons that has a very good impact on whiskey. You’re talking about the penetration of the whiskey into the wood and then the opposite: the alcohol going back into the barrel. That in and out movement through the charred wood in the heat of the summer and in the cold of the winter—that is what gives that depth of taste we’re talking about that is super-premium bourbon. That’s what gets that depth and that character development over time. That’s probably the biggest thing.
Also, one thing that made Kentucky bourbon rise to prominence was limestone-filtered water, the pure water. That was very important in the early days. Today people probably use city water or reverse-osmosis water. We still use natural water to make all of our products. It’s very critical to our process.
MG: Is it important for the grain to come from a specific area?
FN: To be transparent, I wouldn’t say that grain has to come from a specific area. We’ve focused on having the highest quality ingredients, which will equal the highest quality whiskey. So, where the grain is prominently grown in its best habitat is the approach we take. A lot of our corn obviously comes from Kentucky, and the majority of it actually comes from Indiana. As you look at the other grains, they’re grown a little bit further away. The Pacific Northwest is a good region for rye and for barley, which is very important to our process. Geography can have an effect if you’re growing a grain that needs a lot of water. That’s why we’ve focused on getting our grains from the regions where they’re best suited to grow.
MG: The bourbon industry has experienced phenomenal growth over the past 20 years. Where do you see the industry in the next 10 or 20 years?
FN: Just continued growth. Continuing to educate consumers on the product of bourbon or American whiskey, whether here in America or internationally. There are a lot of opportunities to continue developing American whiskey’s flavor. As we continue to feed people’s curiosity about American whiskey or the flavors they’re looking for, we continue to see them grow. Educating people on the fundamentals of bourbon, whether in America or internationally, is just getting it right there.
MG: Is it a goal of the bourbon industry to convert some of the world’s Scotch enthusiasts to bourbon? Are Scotch and bourbon competitors or allies?
FN: Bourbon and Scotch are allies because when you have people’s attention on whiskey, a flavor profile is available. We’re using barley; they’re predominantly using barley as well. Are there flavors that people like in Scotch that can be found in American whiskey? I think so. Also, vice versa. As long as people are enjoying whiskey and are curious about the flavor of whiskey, there’s a place for both of us to sit in the industry.
MG: Bourbon distilleries are emerging in many areas outside of our state. Should Kentuckians be concerned? What challenges or threats is the bourbon industry looking at?
FN: I wouldn’t be concerned as a Kentuckian. Obviously, there’s still continued growth here in the Bluegrass distilleries. The biggest challenge I’ll say is continuing to keep the trajectory going toward the “north star” and continuing to deliver high-quality products. As more attention comes, there’s more opportunity. Delivering on that opportunity will continue to keep bourbon or American whiskey in the place it is.
MG: You’re very involved in the distilling center (James Beam Institute for Kentucky Spirits) at UK and in the faculty there. What issues are the distillery scientists and engineers working on?
FN: Anything and everything you can think of! We’ve done copper utilization studies and the health of grain. You know, can you grow barley in Kentucky sustainably and of the health and quality, we’re looking for? There are a lot of challenges to help understand how we can move the quality of our products forward as an industry.
MG: What impact is the Kentucky Bourbon Trail having?
FN: It’s having a big impact. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail is a place where people can get information about all of the distilleries, and then you have a tour path laid out for you—where you understand what Beam is doing, what Buffalo Trace is doing, what Heaven Hill is doing. It’s all right there for people to see where these distilleries are, build their own tour route and see the differences in these products. There are a lot of whiskeys made right here in Central Kentucky, within probably 30 miles of where we’re sitting. But if you go to each distillery, there’s a unique story or a unique part of the process that sets that distillery apart. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail has done a great job of helping us highlight what’s important about our whiskey and our campuses. So, it’s very critical.
MG: Wine country in California has developed a lot of complementary experiences: spas, luxury resorts, dining, boutique hotels and special architecture—a culture. Will bourbon do the same?
FN: If you walk our (Beam) campus, you’ll see an example that we’re really trying to do that. We’ve got a new restaurant called The Kitchen Table, inspired by the kitchen table that sits in my dad’s house; it was actually Jim Beam’s kitchen table. A lot of family meals were shared there.
To take that mantra of “… enjoy it any damn way you please” and “come as friends, leave as family,” you know some family-inspired items are on the menu. The yeast is also very important to our (bourbon-making) processes; the same yeast is used to make the pizza dough there (at the restaurant). It’s very much about bringing people together at the table.
We’re trying to find unique ways to pair our whiskeys with food and culinary experiences as well as parts of our process so that people start to understand what’s delivering the flavor that is the whiskey they like.
MG: What do you say to people who are not bourbon drinkers but consider it something they want to approach? What do you tell them?
FN: One thing I’ll definitely say to them is, don’t be turned off by your first sip. There’s a lot of complexity that comes with aging American whiskey or bourbon. You definitely want to start on the lower complexity and build your way into it. A lot of times, I’ll (first) offer someone a Basil Hayden because it’s got a nice light finish but a body that’s got the different flavors of bourbon. Find something that you like, and don’t be turned away too quickly.
MG: Any closing statement?
FN: Being eighth-generation, my goal is to see where the industry is, come in and learn my craft of whiskey-making and hopefully continue to drive the quality of our family’s whiskey in the right direction across my time. In American whiskey today—in bourbon in particular—there’s a lot of light shining on our industry because of the consumer attention. It’s a critical time to continue delivering unique expressions that hopefully expand people’s opinions of bourbon flavor and in the right direction.
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